Guest post written by author Tatiana de Rosnay
Tatiana de Rosnay is the author of over ten novels, including the New York Times bestseller Sarah’s Key, an international sensation with over 11 million copies in 44 countries worldwide. Together with Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, and Stieg Larsson, she has been named one of the top ten fiction writers in Europe. De Rosnay lives in Paris. Her new novel Flowers of Darkness releases on February 23rd 2021.
I alas don’t own a cat, (my husband is more of a “dog person”), but I’m lucky to be blessed with two cats in the family. My son Louis is the proud master of Mistral, named after the unruly Provence wind, and my daughter Charlotte is besotted with Nikita, her adorable, turquoise-eyed pet. I spend quite a bit of time looking after both of these magnificent felines when my adult children travel, but I hadn’t quite anticipated just how much cats can help during lockdowns. And how precious they can be to writers.
I hadn’t planned to include a cat in my novel Flowers of Darkness, but as I plotted Clarissa’s arrival in the Parisian state-of-the-art residence she moves into after her marital breakup, it seemed logical for her to have one, offered by her daughter, so that things felt less lonely. (Clarissa also happens to be a Franco-British writer, but let me be clear, dear reader, Clarissa is not me!) This cat, named Chablis, after a delicious French wine, is the first to pick up on the strangeness of Clarissa’s new abode. Chablis is definitely not settling in and spends hours staring at the ceiling with the fur on his back bristling. Clarissa doesn’t know much about cats, and this behavior upsets her, because she can’t quite understand it. And yes, there is indeed something fishy going in the CASA Residence for artists. Chablis was right.
I wrote Flowers of Darkness in 2019, well before the pandemic, but when France endured its first lockdown in March 2020, I found it uncanny that several scenes I described in the book, specifically when Clarissa is shuttered up in her apartment overlooking a completely deserted city, precisely echoed what I was going through myself. Paris, for the past year, like many cities around the world, is now a ghost town. The six o’clock curfew which is still effective every evening as I write these words, casts an unprecedented shroud on the city of Light’s radiance. The empty Eiffel Tower, (which endures an unpleasant fate in my dystopia, please forgive me!) still lights up and shimmers upon the hour, but there are hardly any tourists to see her play the bejeweled seductress.
Lockdown is not unknown territory to us writers, as we are used to being bolted up in front of our computers for days on end. The difference is that we can no longer promote our books, all our tours have been cancelled, and the only way to get the word out about our work is to engage in online discussions and conferences, and resort to social media. And then, of course, a new lockdown also means writing the next book a trifle earlier than anticipated. Which is what I chose to do, like many writer friends.
Guest post continues after images…
L-R: Mistral and Nikita
During the second Parisian lockdown (which by the way, is interestingly called confinement in French) Mistral graced us with his presence for a couple of weeks. I had never lived with a cat before, so it was a whole new experience. What a silent yet comforting presence a cat is! While I worked at my desk, Mistral often jumped up to sit next to my computer, with a sphinx-like attitude which somehow inspired me as I wrote. Mistral is a large cat and has Maine Coon heritage and although he is very quiet, he does take up space. He is there. And he wants me to know it. I had to get used to him being right behind me, shadowing me. And at night, when I went to visit the bathroom, or get a glass of water in the kitchen, he trailed me happily, proffering companionship even in the wee hours. Yes, he was there, a comforting, warm ball of fur poised at the end of the bed. And of course, the purring. Cat owners know all about this, but those who discovered it, like me, rejoice in the incredibly comforting sound and sensation of a cat purring on your lap.
Like Clarissa, my heroine, I live on the top floor of my building, and have an admirable view overlooking Paris and its grey roofs. When Mistral arrived here for the first time, he immediately padded out to the balcony as soon as I opened the window, slid under the railing and made his nimble way along the gutters, to my dismay. He appeared to be enjoying the view as much as I did, gazing out to the Eiffel Tower and the sky, and had no vertigo whatsoever. I could hardy bear watching him but had to admire his surefootedness. When I mentioned this later to my son by FaceTime, Louis laughed, and said “Well, yes, Mom, that’s a cat for you!” Recently, I went to feed young Nikita while my daughter was out of town for a week. I had been warned by Charlotte that I would probably never lay eyes on her, as she is wary of strangers. But as this was the first time her pet was left alone for so long, Nikita greeted me with such effusion, I felt flattered. Then she happily curled up on my coat and refused to budge.
A cat appears to be the writer’s perfect companion. It doesn’t need to be taken out for walks, it manages pretty much by its own, and most times never answers when you call it. At times, you feel you are the one living in the cat’s house, instead of the other way round. And yes, a cat, with its hypnotizing beauty is a source of inspiration. I began to understand why some of my favourite French writers were inspired by cats and wrote about them so evocatively. Victor Hugo who revered Chanoine, a huge, fluffy creature treated like royalty in his Place des Vosges townhouse wrote: “God has made the cat to give man the pleasure of caressing the tiger.” Emile Zola bequeathed human names to his own cats, (Catherine, Françoise) and in his first novel “Thérèse Raquin”, a disquieting orange tabby cat dubbed François is the silent witness to adultery and murder. Baudelaire, who often evoked felines in his haunting poetry, worshipped his own animal, Tibère, to such an extent he used to stroke it feverishly while he wrote. And as for audacious Colette, the renowned cat lover, she composed an entire novel, La Chatte, around a love triangle involving a man, a woman …. and a cat!